Every year, more Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer than all other cancers combined. The good news is most cases are treatable and have low rates of recurrence—if you catch them early enough. Here’s how to protect the skin you’re in.
illustration of woman holding flower patterned mirror
Illustration by Hanna Barczyk
| Credit: Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Educate yourself

There are three main types of skin cancer. Basal cell carcinoma, the most common form, typically occurs on sun-exposed skin and has an almost 100 percent cure rate when detected and treated early. Squamous cell carcinoma is more serious and can require more aggressive treatment, but if caught early, most cases are still curable. Melanoma is a rarer skin cancer but also the deadliest. It can be found anywhere but often appears on the trunk for men and the legs for women. Genetics play a role. "Anyone with a parent or sibling with melanoma has a 50 percent greater chance of developing the disease," says Jeremy Brauer, a New York–based dermatologist. Beyond family history, folks with light skin, hair, and eyes and those who burn or freckle easily or have many moles are also at higher risk.

See spots (and run)

You get a full skin check with a derm once a year (or every six months if you're at higher-than-average risk), right? Right?! In addition, it's best to give your body a thorough once-over each month. Look for unfamiliar marks or sores that haven't healed and continue to itch, crust, scab, or bleed. Pay special attention to moles that have gotten bigger or look pearly, translucent, brown, black, or multicolored. Remember, all cases aren't the same. "Some non-melanoma skin cancers can be white or waxy with irregular borders or a crusty red patch," says Brauer. "Others may look like a pimple that just won't go away." If you find something suspect, schedule an appointment with a dermatologist right away. A doctor can determine if you're in the clear or need a biopsy.

Be sun savvy

Adding sunscreen to your routine will keep you safe (and younger looking!) now and in the long run. "When choosing a product, you must block UVB and UVA rays," says Jill Waibel, a Miami-based dermatologist. "UVA radiation penetrates deeper into the skin, even through clouds and windows, and is the main culprit for skin cancers and sun damage." Brauer advises applying one ounce of a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 every morning to exposed skin about 30 minutes before heading out the door. If you'll be spending the day outside, use more sunscreen and reapply every two to three hours—and even more often if you'll be swimming or sweating. For more protection, wear a hat with a wide brim and UV-blocking sunglasses.